After nearly four years of modified operations following the pandemic, Walt Disney World rolled out significant changes in its theme parks on Jan. 9, 2024.
In a recent earnings call, Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger noted that Walt Disney World performed “well above pre-COVID levels” in 2023, with revenue up 21% compared to fiscal year 2019. While Disney’s recent balance sheets exceed pre-COVID metrics, executives are conscious of the fact that profit cannot come at the expense of the guest experience.
At the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in early 2023, Iger commented on park admission and crowds — significant drivers in the company’s robust balance sheets — as something that has a direct correlation to guest satisfaction.
“It’s tempting to let more and more people in,” Iger said. “But if the guest satisfaction levels are going down because of crowding, that doesn’t work.”
Disney World had many measures in place throughout 2020 and 2021 for guest and employee safety, like face masks and social distancing. Those and other protocols, like required park reservations and restrictions on visiting multiple parks on the same day, began to affect overall guest satisfaction as time passed.
With fans’ desire for change becoming more vocal, Disney World is slowly and methodically responding.
Parks Returning to Pre-2020 Operations
A Disney World vacation from July 2020 through the end of 2023 came with several pandemic-era guidelines that changed how families planned and navigated their days in the parks. Most face mask requirements and social distancing protocols were lifted by early 2022, though a few additional modifications remained.
With guests asking for changes to bring the parks closer to what they looked like in 2019, Disney responded in significant ways. For example, Disney placed limitations on Park Hopping, or the ability for guests to visit multiple parks in a single day, following the park closures. Since January 2021, when Park Hopping first returned, guests could move from park to park again, but only after 2 p.m. Now, the ticket add-on has returned to its former all-day capability. Guests may now hop as they please.
Gavin Doyle, founder of Mickey Visit and bestselling author of Disneyland Secrets, shares, “It’s a great sign that Walt Disney World has listened to guest feedback and brought some of the popular offerings that guests missed from before the 2020 closure. Though there are still several things missing from the parks, generally, much has returned to normal.”
Doyle notes that the return of Disney World’s Park Hopping benefit will give guests planning their days in the parks a sense of ease. He shares, “There have been times in the past two years when I have felt limited by the park hopping rule that prevented us from starting the day in one park and then heading over for lunch in another park. For instance, now we can start the day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and then hop over to Epcot for lunch.”
The Disney Dining Plan is another facet of Disney World vacation planning that returned in 2024. Popular with guests who prefer an all-inclusive feel while traveling, the Dining Plan is a vacation package add-on allowing visitors to prepay for their meals and snacks.
A Few Anticipated Changes Remain
While today’s Disney World experience more closely resembles 2019 than the previous few years, fans still await a few additional changes. Among those are modifications Disney promised to implement to Genie Plus. The digital service allows users to book one-hour return windows for expedited wait times for most rides and attractions, similar to its predecessor, FastPass Plus. Genie Plus costs a daily fee, whereas park admission included FastPass Plus, but the two services are nearly identical in function.
One vital difference with Genie Plus, aside from its price, is that guests must make all of their reservations the day of for expedited queues, now known as Lightning Lanes. In years past, guests booked FastPass Plus return times up to two months ahead of their vacation. Doyle notes it is one of the major changes fans want to see for Genie Plus.
“One aspect that was announced but no date was given was the ability to make advance reservations for Genie Plus,” says Doyle. “This will make the service function much more like the previous FastPass Plus offering that was offered before the closures.”
Another pandemic-era modification on its way back to normalcy is Disney World’s Park Reservation system. Launched in 2020, Disney originally designed the system to monitor crowds at a time when the parks had limited capacity for social distancing.
At the 2023 Morgan Stanley Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference, Iger highlighted the balance of profitability and crowd reduction, alluding to reservations as an essential tool in doing so. He warned, however, “We have to be careful about that as well, ’cause in doing that, [you] actually end up increasing the price or putting features into your pricing that are viewed by some consumers [as] perhaps being a little too aggressive and that’s what we’re being careful about.”
Over time, guest feedback signaled that simply getting into the theme park with features like the reservation system was hindering rather than improving their experience.
The most significant change to the system came on Jan. 9, 2024, with reservations no longer required for guests who purchase date-based tickets. Date-based ticket buyers include most regular-day guests but exclude Annual Passholders, who are still required to book reservations under most circumstances.
Disney World accommodates Annual Passholders by adding “Good-To-Go” days on the calendar where a reservation is not required. Even still, Annual Passholders want to see the system end entirely and revert to what it was before 2020. Guests have pointed out the lack of spontaneity as one of the most notable shifts following the pandemic. While much has returned to normal, these final few aspects of planning a day in the theme parks remain hindrances to many Disney fans.
This article was produced by Media Decision and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.